Abortion bill falters in final days

Session nears an end as parental consent bill lingers in Senate

Posted: Sunday, April 19, 2009

This year's prominent abortion rights measure, an effort to require parental consent before minors can seek abortions, appears to be stalled in legislative limbo despite a last-minute compromise.

The parental consent bill passed through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives earlier, but failed to get a hearing in the Senate until Friday, two days before the end of the session.

Gov. Sarah Palin Saturday criticized the lack of action on abortion, calling it a "blow to parents across the state" and said she would continue to work "as a private citizen" on the issue. That might mean involvement in a ballot initiative, said Sharon Leighow, spokesperson for Palin.

The bill aimed to restore restrictions on abortion that the Alaska Supreme Court found unconstitutional, but critics said the new effort was possibly unconstitutional as well.

The last-minute maneuvering came as Gov. Sarah Palin left Alaska in the session's final days to speak at an anti-abortion gathering in Indiana. Palin backed the compromise, an amended bill that replaced parental consent with parental notification.

On Thursday, Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, spoke out strongly against the delay in the Senate, saying he thought he had a commitment for a hearing on the bill, and that supporters of the bill had flown to Juneau to testify.

A hearing was called Friday, but after two hours of public testimony, the committee rejected Dyson's attempt to move the bill to the next committee on a 4-1 vote.

"A lot of work needs to be done on this bill," said Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, chair of the Senate's Health and Social Services Committee.

Another meeting of the committee was scheduled for Saturday morning, but was canceled.

House Bill 35 already had passed through the House, where it was sponsored by Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, voted in favor of the bill; Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, was opposed.

In the Senate, the bill faced two committees chaired by liberal Democrats, Davis and Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage.

An effort at compromise appeared to make only a few people happy. On Friday, Davis introduced the amended bill to replace consent with notification.

Dyson said he was willing to make the change to get it passed.

"We much preferred the parental consent, but we felt that if that wasn't possible, the notification was better than what we had," Dyson said.

The bill is waiting in the Senate, where a Democratic-majority coalition holds control. Senators announced early in the session that controversial bills were unlikely to pass. Dyson is one of four conservative Republicans excluded from that coalition.

Dyson has expressed frustration that a bill he filed before the beginning of the session did not get a hearing until two days before it ended, and only after the House version had passed.

Even the compromise of notification ran into intense criticism from the public, however.

"Notification is still essentially consent," Joseph Lapp of Homer said at Friday's hearing on the bill. It gives control over children to parents, even abusive ones, he said.

Juneau resident Britteny Cioni said she got pregnant at 18, but fortunately had loving and supportive parents to turn to.

"I still dreaded telling my parents, and I can still taste the dread in my mouth," she said.

Critics expressed skepticism that a clause that allows minors to go to court to win approval for an abortion without parental consent or notification was too difficult to use, especially in rural Alaska.

Palin said she was willing to support the compromise in an effort to get a bill passed. But the amendment disappointed other abortion opponents.

"I think it was a better bill when it was parental consent," said Debbie Joslin of Eagle Forum Alaska. The restrictions would make abortions, which could be harmful to girls, more difficult to obtain, and would strengthen families, she said.

"Families are the building block of our society," Joslin said.

Kerttula said she was happy the bill stalled in the Senate. Requiring parental involvement is not appropriate in too many cases, she said.

"Unfortunately, we live in a world where incest does happen, and child abuse does happen," she said.

Lapp doubted whether government involvement in people's personal lives would strengthen families.

"The state can't force families to be healthy and supportive," he said.

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell also criticized the lack of action on even the compromise measure.

"These legislators have now taken the extreme position that concerned parents can't even be assured they will be notified when their minor daughter faces an abortion," he said.

While the bill cannot pass this session, it is not dead yet. It will return next year in the Health and Social Services Committee.

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